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Meltdown on the Plains

How an ambitious group of Jaycees tried to turn an annual street dance into the biggest show Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, has ever seen.

Pt. 1. The Making of a Meltdown

For the most part, there are two "big events" every year for the town of Fort Calhoun, Neb., population around 700, located about eight miles north of Omaha on Highway 75.

First, there's the Fourth of July, when the fireworks stands located on the southern edge of town become jam-packed with Omahans eager to load up on pop bottle rockets, festival balls and other colorful explosives unavailable in the city limits. The next busiest time comes around Halloween, when Omahans again make their sojourn north, this time to the local orchards to pick apples and visit the pumpkin patches.

Fort Calhoun Jaycee Mike Smith hoped to add a third big event to the town's calendar -- Aug. 5, the day of Meltdown 2000, what should easily be the largest one-day event Fort Calhoun has hosted in recent memory.

As a former resident of Fort Calhoun, I was more than a little shocked when I heard that instead of the usual local cover bands, this year's annual Jaycee charity street dance would play host to international recording stars The Verve Pipe.

Smith had coordinated the street dances for the past six years. Last year's acts were Omaha cover band Top Secret and local acts The Nuclear Bees and Illicit. The draw was impressive -- about 1,500 -- but nothing compared to the 8,000 Smith hoped to draw for Meltdown 2000.

Why the giant leap? "I don't have a freakin' clue," Smith joked. "I said about five years ago that for the year 2000 we'll have a national act that will put Fort Calhoun on the map. Well, here it is."

The planning started last December. After getting approval to host the event by the Fort Calhoun City Council, Smith began rummaging through a list of potential bands. His first idea was to book a couple '80s-era bands, and before long, the Jaycees were in negotiations with Pat Benatar and Rick Springfield.


"When that fell through, we thought we'd target alternative acts and stay away from the bands performing in all the other local summer festivals," Smith said.

With no industry background, Smith, 39, said he was "shooting from the hip," trying to contact agents with the help of the Internet and some tips from a few friends in the business. It didn't take long until he was on the phone with a number of national booking agencies and had a verbal agreement with Dream Works' recording artist Papa Roach. But before the deal could be finalized, the band had joined the Korn tour. "I was told I could either book both bands or neither," Smith said.

The guarantee was a bit pricey: $175,000.

"That was out of our range," Smith said. "We didn't have the capacity to hold a show that large, anyway."

He kept plugging away with agencies, including Monterey Peninsula Artists (MPA). He finally compiled a list of around 50 bands in their price range. Then all's he had to do was pick one -- a tough decision when you've never really listened to alternative rock before.

"I gave the list to several people, ranging in age from 18 to the upper 30s," Smith said. Eventually, the field of prospects was narrowed down. "To be honest, not many artists were interested in playing in Fort Calhoun, especially after we told them that we hadn't done anything like this before."

Finally, an agent from MPA called and said he had a band available -- The Verve Pipe, a band best known for their 1997 song, "Freshmen," which became a number one modern rock hit and a Top Ten pop hit that helped turn their album, Villains, gold.

"To be honest, not many artists were interested in playing in Fort Calhoun, especially after we told them that we hadn't done anything like this before."

Smith said crews will begin setting up the large performance stage, valued at more than $10,000, Friday. For staging, the Jaycees are getting some big-time professional help from Mannheim Steamroller's Chip Davis.


"I had heard 'Freshman' before, but that was about it," Smith said. "I went out and bought their CDs and found out what other hits they've had. We submitted an offer to MPA and they agreed."

That was in mid-May. Since then, a committee of Jaycees headed by Smith had been working through the festival's logistics nightmare. The only feasible place to hold such a large gathering was the Fort Calhoun Baseball Complex, a new diamond located just east of the mammoth Wilkinson factory on the south end of town. For parking, 24 acres of nearby farmland was rented in fields adjacent to the complex.

Crews began setting up the large performance stage, valued at more than $10,000, the night before the concert. For staging, the Jaycees got some big-time professional help from Mannheim Steamroller's Chip Davis. A resident of nearby Ponca Hills, Davis has long been a Jaycees supporter, Smith said.

"It's all being done through Soundtrack International -- the stage lighting, sound and production," Smith said. "Davis' people are doing the entire production."

Vendors began pitching their tents around the field. Patrons were welcome to bring in sealed bottles of water.

Tickets to Meltdown 2000 were $15 advance, $25 day of show, available through Ticketmaster or at the event's "box office" located at The Forgot Store in Ponca Hills.


Pt. 2. Send in the Crowd

Everything was in place.

The stage was enormous. The sound and lighting rigs were top-notch. Vendors' tents were loaded with delicious food and drink. A row of spotlessly clean port-a-johns stood stoically at attention.

All was prepared for a crowd that never arrived.

It's too early to say whether the event, organized and sponsored by the Fort Calhoun Jaycees, was a bust. As of Sunday night, Ticketmaster hadn't reported the final ticket sales. But if the turnout for the actual performance of The Verve Pipe is any indication, the Jaycees' return on investment could be rather disappointing.

At the height of the Pipe's performance, no more than 300 (and that's stretching it) stood in front of a barricade designed to hold back the throngs from the enormous stage.

"All in all, everything went fantastic," said event organizer Mike Smith. "The vendors were great, the bands were great, the stage crew and everyone pitched in. We just didn't get the crowd we hoped for."

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Only about 40 were on hand to see The Nuclear Bees, the last band before the Verve Pipe took the stage.

















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The Verve Pipe's Brian Vander Ark had the crowd of around 200 mesmerized for about an hour. "I'd like to thank the town of Fort Calhoun for coming out tonight -- all 640 of you," he said sarcastically.

You would be hard-pressed to find a better-run festival anywhere. More than 100 orange-T-shirt-clad volunteers and Jaycees hustled in the steamy August heat, making sure no problem arose during the well-orchestrated event. The stage, lighting and sound, whose construction was overseen by Terry Seafus of American Gramaphone, were impressive. The black-draped curtain wall towered over the Fort Calhoun Basebal Complex, like a rock-n-roll monument. Rows and rows of chrome can lights hung overhead, their lenses covered with colorful gels, while below, stacks of Marshall amps cluttered a stage that even the Rolling Stones would have been proud to strut across.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the ball field, a Budweiser distributor had set up a massive beer tent, on top of which was constructed a special $5 per hour seating section designed to give a lucky few a view over the expected throngs. Food vendors offered everything from slices of watermelon to a variety of delicious smoked meats, while on the opposite side, tables were set up for bands to spread out their merchandise for adoring fans to purchase.

But upon arrival at about 1 p.m. (an hour after the event was slated to begin), it was obvious that something was wrong, as only about a dozen cars were parked in the well-mowed, 24-acre parking field just south of the ball diamond. Fort Calhoun's field of dreams was virtually empty while agro-rock band Illicit, dressed in matching prison-style orange jump suits, bounced around the stage doing their best Korn imitations.

The crowd remained sparse throughout the remainder of the day. By the time the Nuclear Bees began their set at around 7 p.m., only 50 or so fans were on hand, soaked to the skin in sweat. The heat was unbearable. Though temperatures were only in the upper 80s and lower 90s, the relative humidity hovered in the mid-70s. By late afternoon, the volunteer fire department sprayed large plumes of water onto the field to provide some relief for the few left on hand.

The weather cooled considerably by the time The Verve Pipe took the stage at around 9 p.m. For almost 90 minutes, they played songs mostly from their 1996 gold album, "Villains," including their top-ten hit, "The Freshmen." Those on hand enjoyed a performance by a polished, FM-style alternative band sporting a catalog of music unheard on any radio station. They closed their set with a rousing version of The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," which was punctuated by a modest fireworks display.


Depending on who you talked to, the cost of the event fluctuated between $37,000 and $50,000 or more. Seafus said the staging and sound totaled around $17,000. Others said The Verve Pipe's guarantee was around $25,000. No one knew for sure or was saying.

The no-shows didn't tell the whole story. People will buy tickets to events sponsored by organizations such as the Jaycees with no intention of attending.

In fact, Smith said advance ticket sales, which went for $15 each, were strong up to the Thursday before the concert. Regardless, most of those I spoke with said the Jaycees would be lucky to have sold the 3,000 tickets targeted before the event.

As I was leaving the venue, I told Smith that the festival went off flawlessly. "No it didn't," he replied. "We didn't get the crowd we wanted. I don’t know what more I could have done in terms of publicity."

He was in better spirits the following day, saying that overall, Meltdown 2000 had been a positive experience. "Those who were there had a good time and got a great show," he said.

He says he plans on reviewing what went right and wrong in the event planning. Though some had criticized the lack of advertising, he said ads had been placed in various newspapers, on the Internet and on numerous radio stations. In fact, Z-92 was even on hand for the first couple hours of the festival.

Regardless, many will be left questioning the wisdom of a festival built around four local acts (two of which were cover bands, and only one -- the original hard rock outfit 3 Day Meat Sale -- with any experience on larger Omaha stages such as The Ranch Bowl) opening for a national act with one hit song to its credit; a band that wasn't on tour and hasn't released an album since July 1999 (their completely ignored eponymous album that Rolling Stone called "too unoriginal to be convincing… a tidy, disposable sentiment that basks in its trendy content; beneath its moody sheepskin.")

These are all things Smith and the Jaycees will need to consider before they begin planning next year's street dance. Will there be a Meltdown 2001? "I hope so," Smith said. "I think we should do it again."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly. Pt. 1 appeared August 3; Pt. 2 appeared August 10, 2000. Copyright 2000 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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The Verve Pipe's Brad Vander Ark sweats in the 70 percent humidity. Who needs a pit pass when you can literally walk up next to the stage?